When voters elected Bill Clinton president of the United States in 1992, they were also electing his wife. Bill announced the fact himself, but after the failure of her health reform plan, Hillary’s only political success was her excellent performance in the role of a faithful wife who “stands by her man”. Her brave defense of her frivolous husband was widely appreciated, but as a qualification for the highest office in the land, it seems a bit skimpy. Having played a part in wars in the former Yugoslavia might seem more presidential.
During the 2008 Democratic Party primaries, Hillary evoked the foreign policy experience she had gained as First Lady by repeatedly regaling audiences with an exciting account of her trip to the Bosnian city of Tuzla in 1996:
“I certainly do remember that trip to Bosnia,” she told audiences. “There was a saying around the White House that if a place was too small, too poor, or too dangerous, the president couldn’t go, so send the First Lady. I remember landing under sniper fire. There was supposed to be some kind of a greeting ceremony at the airport, but instead we just ran with our heads down to get into the vehicles to get to our base.”
As word got around of what she was telling audiences, Hillary’s story was rapidly denied by numerous eyewitnesses to the event, as well as by television footage showing Ms. Clinton arriving in Tuzla with her daughter Chelsea and being greeted by little children offering flowers.
Cornered by the Philadelphia Daily News editorial board during an interview in late March, 2008, Hillary Clinton was forced to acknowledge that there were no snipers, but eased her way out:
“I think that, a minor blip, you know, if I said something that, you know, I say a lot of things – millions of words a day – so if I misspoke it was just a misstatement.”
She never had to dodge sniper fire, but she does know how to dodge embarrassing questions. The fact that she utters “millions of words per day” is supposed to give her a generous quota of possible “misstatements”, or to put it more simply, lies.
The claim to have run from snipers was historically absurd and morally pretentious, in addition to being blatantly false. Four months before her visit, the hostilities in Bosnia had been decisively brought to a halt by the Dayton peace accords, signed on November 21, 1995. She could not fail to know that. Indeed, far from being sent to a place that was “too dangerous” for the
President, the visit by the First Lady and her daughter was intended precisely to emphasize that the White House had not lost interest in Bosnia even though peace had been restored. Hillary’s spokesman Howard Wolfson had also added to the “misstatements” by claiming that she was “on the front lines” of “a potential combat zone”. Aside from the fact that there could be no “front lines” or “combat zone” when the war was over, Tuzla had never been either one. Tuzla was a largely Muslim- inhabited industrial center which had been selected as a U.S. military base, probably in part because it was a particularly safe environment.
Lying about Bosnia was nothing unusual, but this was a particularly silly, self-aggrandizing lie. Hillary evidently assumed that a brush with gunfire would be considered by the masses as adding to her qualifications to become Commander in Chief. It also showed a persistent tendency to view conflicts as occasions to display personal toughness, instead of as challenges calling for intelligent understanding of political complexities. Hillary’s claim to have braved sniper fire is not so far removed from Sarah Palin’s claim to understand Russia because she could see it from Alaska.
Hillary’s recorded statements concerning the former Yugoslavia revealed the same tendency to play to the galleries in matters of foreign policy that would mark her subsequent term as Secretary of State.
The Holocaust Pretext
In her star-struck biography of the First Lady, Hillary’s Choice, Gail Sheehy reported Hillary’s plea in favor of bombing Yugoslavia in 1999 as a major point in her favor. According to Sheehy’s book, Hillary convinced her reluctant husband to unleash the 78-day NATO bombing campaign against the Serbs with the argument that: “You can’t let this ethnic cleansing go on at the end of the century that has seen the Holocaust.”
This line is theatrical and totally irrelevant to the conflict in the Balkans. As a matter of fact, there was no “ethnic cleansing” going on in Kosovo at that time. It was the NATO bombing that soon led people to flee in all directions – a reaction that NATO leaders interpreted as the very “ethnic cleansing” they claimed to prevent by bombing. But Hillary’s remark illustrates the fact that Yugoslavia marks the start of using reference to the Holocaust as the most emotionally-potent argument in favor of war.
It was not always so. At the end of World War II, both the long- suffering survivors and those who discovered the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps wanted only to draw the conclusion that this was yet another powerful reason never again to go to war. But as time passed, by the strange chemistry of the Zeitgeist, the memory of the Holocaust has now become the strongest rhetorical argument for war. It is a sort of imaginary revisionism of past history that gets in the way of facing the present. Hillary’s sentence is a way of saying, “I would have said no to Hitler at Munich”, or “I would have bombed Auschwitz”. The history of World War II, and even world history itself, has been totally overshadowed in recent decades by the tragedy of the Holocaust to such an extent that even Western heads of State may find themselves acting out the dramas of the past instead of facing the realities of the present. The conflict in Kosovo was so obscure, so unfamiliar to Americans and so distorted by deception and self-deception 19, that the easiest way to think of it was by analogy with a conflict everyone knew about, or thought they knew about. The moral reward seemed immense, especially in consideration of the low cost, since it entailed bombing a country with inadequate air defenses, with no great risk to our side.
It is worth noting that Hillary urged Bill to bomb the Serbs via telephone, while she was in North Africa, touring Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco. Her guide on that trip was her new assistant, Huma Abedin, the young daughter of Muslim scholars and her trusted expert on the Muslim world. Many secular Arab nationalists in North Africa sympathized with the Serbs, due to past good relations with Yugoslavia during the days of the Non-Aligned Movement. However, Hillary had become an apprentice in learning to appreciate the fundamentalist Muslim outlook, and the Muslims of Bosnia and Kosovo enjoyed widespread, even fanatical support, in the Islamic world at this point. Did Huma assure Hillary that Muslims everywhere would applaud the Clinton administration for bombing Serbs?
Nevertheless, there are strong reasons to doubt that Hillary’s moralistic urging was the sole cause of the NATO bombing of what remained of the former Yugoslavia in 1999. Strategists were concerned with less sentimental geopolitical reasons, briefly alluded to above. But there is much less reason to doubt that Hillary did indeed urge Bill to bomb. And there is no reason at all to doubt that she boasted of this to her awed biographer, as a way of proving her “resolve” to use U.S. military power on a “humanitarian” mission. It fits her chosen image as “tough and caring”.
This article is excerpted from Diana Johnstone’s Queen of Chaos: the Misadventures of Hillary Clinton (CounterPunch Books).